Youth Groups, Halo 3, and the Evangelistic Imperative

Note: I am leaving this piece up for today (Wednesday) because of the response it has attracted. I’ll continue my commentary on the issues it raises tomorrow.

The New York Times published a piece yesterday on how church youth groups are using the video game Halo 3 to attract young people, specifically young men, who are just about the hardest group to reach of them all. The article prompted an opportunity for reflection on reaching youth and the lengths to which we go to do so.

Beginning with the immediate issue, I’m not sure how I feel about churches using Halo 3 to reach youth. It is a very violent game, and we’ve got to acknowledge that. With that said, though, the game is not as violent as some games are. I have played previous iterations, none of which incited me to commit violence against others. Should churches use video games to reach teens? That’s a tough question. It’s hard to reach teens. They are at once asking big questions and devoting themselves to minor matters. There is a reason that many young men become obsessed with sports or other diversions and many young men become obsessed with the school social scene or other pastimes. This is because they do not have to deal with the heavy matters of life as do adults. Yet at the same time teens do think a good deal and will consider material that is thoughtfully and interestingly presented. Teens are tough to reach, yes, but affecting material can and will move them and lead them to think about deeper things. They’ll gravitate to Halo 3, yes, but they will also ponder the higher questions of life in their bedrooms when alone and isolated from the immature and sometimes abrasive school environment.

Which leads me to propose that whether or not Halo 3 is the best way to reach teens is not the best question to ask. I would rather have parents taking responsibility for their teens’ spiritual lives and not ceding such activity to their local youth group leader. When parents live out a real, vibrant, passionate Christianity that avoids both pious platitudes and youthful identification, they set themselves up to connect with their child and to allow their teen to consider the Christian faith in a sustained and thoughtful way. We have somehow worked ourselves into a situation where parents are merely responsible for ensuring their teens’ survival, even as they leave all cultivation of a healthy spiritual life to an overtaxed youth minister who has only a fraction of the time and opportunity of a parent with the youngsters. This is a fundamentally flawed situation. Tomorrow, we’ll look at it more, and examine the paradigm through which parents can lead their children through the tough and tumultuous teenage years.

  • R. Mansfield

    Games have always been about war and death, whether that’s football, or chess, or even little children playing cops and robbers.

    My greater concern about a game like Halo 3 (which I own) is the fact that a church might open themselves up to undo criticism for allowing a Mature-rated game to be played by those under 17. I realize that much of the mature rating comes from the campaign and not the multiplayer aspect of the game, but if I were a senior pastor, I’d want to help the youth minister think through the ramifications and possible consequences of using a game such as H3 to reach young people.

  • Riley

    What about using the game to attract unbelieving teenagers to the youth group? I would imagine that is the goal of this “game ministry” because more than likely, the believing children of parents in the church are already attending youth events. I know that when I was an unconverted teenager, I would have gone to church to play video games. I don’t think that this is a wise trend. This kind of thing is not only seen in youth groups, but in many evangelical churches in America, in order to reach unbelieving adults. There is worship that is performed by rock bands, preaching that is theologically shallow but entertaining, flashing lights, cool PowerPoint presentations, movie clips, and other gimmicks to make unbelievers want to come to church. Somewhere in all of this, the gospel, which is uncomfortable, confrontational, and convicting, is missing. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).

  • G. F. McDowell

    Let’s not turn this into a “culture war” or “worship war” discussion. I think if they meet certain criteria, video game use can be permissible in a youth ministry context. One overarching criterion that excludes the vast majority of video games is whether they foster interaction and relationships. Depending on the setup, the vast majority of video games fail the “builds meaningful relationships” test. (and I don’t count taunting each other over a computer network or the “collaborative” aspect of group network played games to be meaningful relationships) What happens then? Unbelieving children come, engage in antisocial or nonsocial videogames, and go home. How does this qualify as outreach if we haven’t built relationships with the youth brought within the walls of the church by this event? I say so what if you force the kids to endure some sort of gospel message before or after the gaming, if there is no relational connection made with them, they won’t be back.

    While they are few and far between, there are some games out there that can be useful in a ministry context. A youth group I was involved with once had a “Dance Dance Revolution” party, we projected the game on the wall of our church gym, and it was a very fun night. This is an example of a game that is very social, and the physical, competitive nature of the game made it a fun event, even for spectators, and many friendships were built for the sake of the Gospel. So I guess I wouldn’t put a blanket prohibition on using video games in outreach, but I would definitely recommend doing it in a way that isn’t simply pandering, but whereby we can use it to forge deeper relationships to be able to better preach the gospel to those individual people.

  • Mary Mc

    I say “Amen” to Christian parents taking primary responsibility for their chidren’s spritual nurturing. However, what is to be done for the millions of teenagers without Christian parents? Whose responsibility is it to reach them? I ask this question as a former Young Life leader. Young Life has many faults, but one thing that organization has is a passion for reaching lost teenagers.

    YL is known for using secular music, crazy games, slapstick humor, but I believe that the most effective distinctive of that ministry is its emphasis on relationships. What teenagers really want is someone who genuinely loves them enough to listen to them and tell them the truth. They want someone who will stick around even when they make bad decisions. They want someone who will not gossip about them or use them for selfish ends.

    Oh, that members of churches would have a such heart for the youth in their community–that they’d start attending basketball games and football games and become a familiar fixture at such events. Amazingly, a consisent presence will open doors and “earn you the right to be heard.”

  • Joseph Gould

    Owen,
    I shall attempt to bridge the gap between the two issues you have raised (proper evangelistic techniques and the validity of youth ministry).

    As a former youth pastor, I admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for youth ministry which is done well (I readily admit the vast majority of youth ministry is not done well). Of course, I realize that by admitting my soft spot for youth ministry that 99% of Reformed Baptists are now heaping condemnation upon my head. Oh well.

    Does the recognition that it is the parents’ responsibility to raise their children mean that youth ministry is invalid?

    I don’t think so. It simply means that youth ministers should see one of their primary responsibilities to be assisting parents in understanding and in having meaningful relationships with their children.
    It means being a pastor to both the youth and the parents.
    It means that we teach and preach biblical theology to the entire family.
    It means we attempt to not divide the church into age groups for every single stinking service (although I don’t see why 1 out of 3-4 gatherings of the church can’t be divided by age).
    It means lots of other things as well, but this is a comment and not a post. :)

    As for proper outreach techniques, I am unconvinced that very many of the churches using such techniques ever actually preach the Gospel to teenagers. The bridge to actual evangelism is not usually crossed. Our churches have to be built on the Word, not the multiplayer mode of Halo 3. If a church wants to have a Friday night event at the youth pastor’s house and play videogames, that’s great. I think good fruit can follow if done well. However, when the weekly gatherings of the church are focused on videogames instead of the ministry of the Word, prayer, and fellowship, I believe we have erred.

  • Tyler W.

    “Our churches have to be built on the Word, not the multiplayer mode of Halo 3. If a church wants to have a Friday night event at the youth pastor’s house and play videogames, that’s great. I think good fruit can follow if done well. However, when the weekly gatherings of the church are focused on videogames instead of the ministry of the Word, prayer, and fellowship, I believe we have erred.”

    I like Joseph’s comment and G.F.’s is constructive, but I’ll throw my two cents in for the heck of it.

    First of all, I think it’s simply fascinating to observe how the gaming industry is affecting everyday American life. Think about the fact that the industry is bigger than the film industry. With the conflagration of games into the homes of millions across the world via the internet, games do carry what I believe to be a social aspect to them. And with that, they carry an ethical aspect to them as well. How much is too much and when does your concept of “self” start to be derived from how many dragons you’ve slayed in World of Warcraft, or your ranking on Halo 3? I digress . . .

    Many a summer night in college was spent playing Halo with friends. During one of those nights, a good friend of mine looked around at the dozen or so of us crammed into his basement and said, “You know, 20 years ago we’d be playing golf instead.”

    Halo was simply a way for us to gather together and do something. Something legal. It kept us occupied and not idle, thus out of trouble.

    Like Joseph said, Halo 3 cannot become the reason youth gather on Wednesday nights or whenever. However, it can serve as a useful tool for the youth minister to bridge the gaps that often divide the youth amongst themselves. You can always count on the universal appeal of Halo; it normally doesn’t matter if you’re a jock or a geek, you like the game. Youth these days are socially interacting via outlets like Halo 3. Let them, just don’t try to attract kids to church and present the Gospel according to Halo.

    “You see, Master Chief is like Jesus in that he’s the only hope for humanity against the evil alien invaders, who are like Satan, and . . .”

    That will simply be seen for the cheese that it is.

  • noneuclidean

    I’m not convinced that Halo 3 is any more violent than a good, rough game of football. I know my church is constantly using sports to bring in kids. I don’t see Halo 3 as much different than that. Thanks for the good thoughts.

  • Josiah

    interesting blog post owen. i appreciate your mediating position, and thoughtful remarks.


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